Bullshit brackets: Why Grantland’s “Battle for the Song of the Millennium” is so addictive

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There are many, many embarrassing things about Grantland’s “Battle for the Best Song of the Millennium,” a reader-voted, bracketed showdown the sports and pop culture website that concludes with its final matchup — “Hey Ya!” versus “Rolling in the Deep” — today.

At the top of the list: how obsessed I am with it.

When it launched last Thursday morning, my day quickly became a struggle to focus on my actual work. The voting part was easy: aside from a couple of close calls (say, choosing between “1901” and “Teenage Dream”) most of my decisions for round one were rather easy. But I kept reloading the results page over and over, wondering how the closest battles would turn out. “Crazy in Love” or “Maps”? “Party in the USA” or “Kids”? Wait, is Lady Gaga actually losing to Kings of Leon?

Check out: The full Grantland bracket

The number of office conversations I’ve had about the battle (usually starting by me yelling “Have you SEEN…!?!”) has been a bit excessive. Then I had to rant about it while having drinks with friends Friday night. Then over drinks with friends on Saturday night. Then…umm…pretty much the same ever since.

Why the fascination? Partly, it’s that it’s a sort of in-progress canonizing of my own musical history. Even more so than my formative 1990s, the 2000s is when I was fully immersed in music culture, so the sorts of debates Grantland is encouraging here were ones that I actually lived through.

But why do we (ie. me) care so much about those debates in the first place? We have more music at our fingertips than ever before in human history; why waste time arguing over it? Why not just admit that there are a lot of great songs being made and enjoy all of them?  Why is this sort of artificial sports-influenced showdown that prompts me to keep reaching for the refresh button in my web browser.

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Well, to start, it’s all about the Internet’s drug of choice: outrage. Grantland’s poll gives a multitude of things to get upset about — not just in the results, but in the whole construction.

In the interest of transparency, here are my tiny outrages:

Shameless link baiting. There is zero logical reason to be hosting this sort of competition now except as a woefully transparent late-summer traffic boost. Why not wait until a more artificially significant milestone? 2015? 2020? Because websites need traffic in August. They certainly got more than their share from me alone.

Bracketing by years. This was the easiest, simplest way Grantland could bracket. In one respect, it’s fair (no manipulation on Grantland’s part in how they’re built) but in all others, it’s absurd, because not all yearspans are created equal. For example, 2000-03 is a juggernaut, easily the strongest by a mile. (In any other bracket, “Crazy in Love” vs. “Hey Ya!” would be a championship fight; in 2000-03, they faced off in round two.) In contrast, both 2004-07 and (especially) 2010-13 came across as extremely weak. The bracketing also hurts artists who produce a number of great songs within a short period of time, because Grantland didn’t allow any artist to repeat in a single bracket. This means some huge, iconic, deserving songs (“Lose Yourself,” “B.O.B.,” “Seven Nation Army”) don’t get to compete because another competitor by the same artist was chosen.

Inexplicable song omissions. Not just the three top contenders I just mentioned, screwed over by the one-song-per-artist-per-bracket thing. Not even artists like Daft Punk that do have one song but could easily have another. Where’s Gnarls Barkely’s “Crazy”? Where’s N’Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye”? (Yeah, it feels like a 90s song, but it actually came out in 2000.) U2’s “Beautiful Day”? Modest Mouse’s “Float On”? Missy’s “Get Yr Freak On?” (Note: most of these are from before 2005 which, again, shows how ridiculously stacked those early years were.)

Big genre omissions: A few genres that were huge in the 2000s are severely underrepresented in the brackets, including pop punk (My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, Green Day, Jimmy Eat World) and Garden State-variety “indie” (Postal Service, Shins, Coldplay). But then there’s also the incredibly weird country representation on the list: three songs, all from 2010 and afterwards, all losing huge in the first round. Granted, I expect that would have happened regardless, but who knows how a stronger contender like Keith Urban’s “Somebody Like You” or Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying” would have fared. Alternatively: what about gigantic near-country tracks like Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” or the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice”?

Female pop fail. One of the most glaring trends in the survey’s early rounds? Female pop singers struggled. “Toxic,” “Teenage Dream,” “We Are Never Getting Back Together,” “Party in the U.S.A.” and “Bad Romance” were all knocked out in round one (the last of these lost to Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody,” perhaps the first round’s most egregious result). In round two, “Crazy in Love,” “Umbrella,” “Tik Tok” and — mind-blowingly — “Since U Been Gone” bit the dust. The only two female pop songs to make it anywhere close to the end were “Call Me Maybe” (which was losing to “Get Lucky” for most of the second round until a suspicious surge of voters — Bieber cultists? —bumped it ahead) and “Rolling in the Deep,” which is one of the last two songs standing and now faces “Hey Ya” in the final round. (Note: given that Adele is branded as something of a confessional singer-songwriter, her success might be less an outlier than something else altogether.). I’m glad that Grantland’s staff called out this trend in their day one recap, and perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that website so based around male-marketed sports (basketball, baseball, football) might find its readers dismissing pop songs like these. But given how far our critical culture has come in acknowledging the value of pop music, evidently there’s still a long way to go in some areas.

That “Since U Been Gone” didn’t win its bracket. COME ON, PEOPLE. Actually, on this point, “Gone” was defeated by the competition’s surprise story, The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of “Brightside” (it ranked prominently on my top songs of the decade list) but no one — especially Grantland staff, who slagged it in every recap post — expected it to win the 2004-07 bracket. Ranked ninth by the editors, it knocked out T.I.’s “What You Know,” “Since U Been Gone,” M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” and Usher’s “Yeah” before losing out to “Hey Ya!” in the overall semi-finals. The (to me) surprising success of both “Brightside” and Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody” is perhaps the flipside of the points above: Grantland’s demographics rejected country and female pop but mobilized behind the competition’s two big rock-ish songs.

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So in summary: it’s bullshit. It’s alllllll bullshit. So why care?

If you ever speak with music critics, they will often dismiss the numerical trappings of their field: ratings, countdowns, year-end lists. Many see these as obstacles, not aids, towards understanding what makes music interesting, effective and “good.” They’d much rather people focus on the words they write (or, in other media, what they say) rather than on an oft-arbitrary numbers tossed out for the sake of guttural, “What did Pitchfork give it?” reactions that generates hit counts.

I sympathize, but I can’t say I totally agree.

A while ago, I had the chance to interview Chilly Gonzales, pianist and producer extraordinaire, and we discussed bravado and competition (both of which are key components of the persona he’s constructed for himself). He saidhow he’s always seen music as competitive: he wants to be better than his previous self and better than his peers, and that sort of attitude actually got him in trouble a bit while studying music at university. But it made total sense to me, just like how Kanye West’s more egregious persona traits — namely, his hyperactive desire to out-do everyone else and demand similar standards of excellence from award shows and other institutions — feel totally reasonable (if the way he expresses them is often anything but).

Music is a competition. It’s in competition with itself and it’s in competition with everything else going on in our lives. Every song we choose to listen to means there are millions of songs that, in that moment, we’re choosing not to listen to. And every time we choose to put on a record at home, it’s choosing not to turn on the TV, or Netflix, or something else that blinks, boops or bops in our lives. Hell, in an era where music increasingly becomes a background to something else, choosing music exclusively at any point is significant.

Now, let’s be clear: I’m 100% on board with all the arguments about how complicated it is to choose what music is “better” than any other kind, or define “how much” better it is by coming up with a number. Those decisions are complicated, prone to bias and often borderline (or just underlined) arbitrary.

But contrast is how we define our lives: ultimately, someone decides “yes” or “no” to a request to “Call Me Maybe.” And I genuinely believe that the process of contrast can help illuminate why music works, why music works for me, and why music works for others. When I sit down to make my year-end lists each December, I leave the process feeling like I understand more about the albums involved simply because in trying to determine those “arbitrary” rankings, I had to narrow down and focus on why Album A was better at what it was trying to do than Album B, or why Album C hit me harder than Album D.

Next month, I’ll have the privilege of flying to Toronto to join 10 other smart music types to decide who wins this year’s Polaris Music Prize. I’ve spent much of August listening to the 10 shortlisted albums, many of which I love and a couple of which are among my absolute favourites from the past couple of years. I’ve said before that, for me, who wins the Polaris is often incidental — the prize’s real value is in its conversations, in bringing attention to Canadian music by getting music fans to discuss, deliberate.

Now, though, I’m in a position where my thoughts on the albums are anything but incidental. One has to take home the prize; the others, the consolations. My opinions can no longer be loose, scattered, reactionary. They need to be focused, honed, sharp. I need to go into that room ready to explain which album(s) on that list truly deserve to be named the best in Canada and why. In being forced to contrast, I end up with something approaching clarity.

Just colour me relieved that Polaris doesn’t bracket.

One response to “Bullshit brackets: Why Grantland’s “Battle for the Song of the Millennium” is so addictive

  1. Pingback: Watching the Watchers: In defence of lists | Storyline – Innovation Team Test Site·

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